Beak reduction of chicks: what is it?

Animal welfare issues in the poultry sector are numerous and equally numerous are the criticisms made of intensive/protected poultry farming. Among these criticisms is the so-called ‘beak trimming’ of chicks, a practice associated with those destined to become hens.

This procedure is considered by most to be mistreatment, mainly because the term evokes something violent and leads one to imagine situations that, especially today, are far removed from what actually happens. It is, in fact, a system for preventing the damage that these animals cause to their fellows when they share a space. It is a natural behaviour that in a farm, however, represents a factor that tends to lower animal welfare criteria, affecting both the health of the animal and the economic contribution that the animal makes to those who breed it.

This operation, as it is carried out today, is therefore more appropriate to call it ‘beak treatment’.

The operation only concerns, we repeat, hens reared to produce eggs, and is performed by the age of 10 days. The part of the chicks’ beak near the tip is in fact shaped like a pointed hook, which serves to allow the hen to pluck, select food particles and penetrate the ground more easily.

On farms, however, food is constantly available to the animals so the reduction of the beak is only done to avoid plucking, which the hens practise among themselves as a matter of role. Another reason is to avoid cases of cannibalism, which hens instinctively tend to do towards eggs.

Years ago, the beak was trimmed with a hot blade, and being an operation performed manually by a person, the cut could be imprecise.

But we are talking about a field, that of poultry farming, which is constantly evolving with the aim of offering ever greater wellbeing to the animals it deals with, for the simple, never over-emphasised reason that the more you can increase even the smallest sign of potential greater wellbeing, the more the animal returns this attention in the form of health and therefore also commercial and food wellbeing for consumers.

Today, in fact, to eliminate the risk of unintentionally injuring the chicks, the reduction treatment is carried out by robots specifically designed to avoid trauma to the chicks and to provide for minimal human intervention. Some of these robots automatically measure the size of the beak and the chick and illuminate only the end area of the beak with infrared light in a fraction of a second. The part exposed to infrared light dries out and falls off after a couple of weeks, leaving the beak rounded, tightly closed, with no sharp ends and no risk of infection. In this way, injuries, which are one of the main causes of infection, are drastically reduced on farms.

These attentions, which are necessary even if criticised by detractors, therefore lead to greater welfare and lower mortality due to the fact that, although a certain normal competition between the animals remains, injuries are drastically reduced.

Although these measures have very high costs that affect the already low margins of the industry, they increase animal welfare and are now being used on an increasing number of farms because of both the beneficial effects on the animals and the economic return for the farmers.

Below is an illustrated summary of the new procedures and results:


Beak reduction of chicks: what is it?
Diagram of how (in section) infrared treatment takes place


The chicks are placed in the invitation of the infrared machine which receives the part of the beak to be treated


Of the two chicks, the one on the left has just received the beak reduction treatment with infrared: you can see the treated portion of the beak.


Adult hen with treated beak. Notice the rounding at the end


The Editors of M.A.C.